Can Money Buy You Happiness?

Someone once joked “I am told money can’t buy you happiness, but I’d still like the opportunity to find out for myself,” a quotation that neatly captures most people’s true feelings. Of course, few would dispute the idea that poverty makes you miserable. But that does not mean wealth makes you happy!

Money and Symbolism

The problem with money is that, though it really does bring some people happiness, that happiness tends to be shallow and fake. Rich people often gain little happiness from the physical objects their money buys. Most therapists would agree that people have a so-called “set point” of happiness. In other words, major events disturb their life from time to time, making it better or worse, but they soon adapt and return to the same level of happiness as before. More generally, people adjust to a better standard of living and soon take it for granted.

Mature, thoughtful individuals see money for what it is: a way of obtaining the things they need or want. Money in itself means very little to them. So long as they have enough to enjoy a reasonable standard of living, provide for those they love, and afford the occasional treat, they are happy. But for others, money becomes symbolic. When that happens, compulsive accumulation begins.

For some, their bank balance represents power and success. Others, who were poor as children, hoard money because it symbolizes the security they never had. Money can even be a substitute for love. Perhaps strangest of all, money can symbolize moral value. This was especially true in the past. For example, journalists and politicians in Victorian England often described poverty as a form of immorality.

Once people transform money into a symbol, problems follow. A hypothetical example may bring this to life. Imagine a businessman named Peter. Peter grew up in the poorest, most violent part of Chicago. He never knew his father and his mother was a self-pitying drunk who showed him no interest or affection. Peter was bright and won a place at a good school in a rich part of town. But he always felt despised and rejected by the other pupils because of his background. Whenever something was stolen or vandalized, Peter knew everyone suspected him. In later life he became a successful, but ruthless, businessman. He married and started a family. But though he was rich, it wasn’t enough. His wife grew angry and wanted to know why he worked so hard. “We have more money than we need,” she would say, “why do you always want more?” Peter ignored her. Soon she left him, taking the children with her. Eventually, he betrayed too many people and made too many enemies. His business empire crashed and he was left with nothing.

In Peter’s case it is obvious what went wrong. Money in itself meant nothing to him. He took little pleasure in family vacations or the big house he was able to buy. But he worked all hours and hoarded as much money as possible because it symbolized something to him. Money represented the security, power, and control he lacked in childhood, the moral worth he was denied at school, and even the love he had never received. But he continued hoarding because the real problems remained untouched. The deep-rooted feelings of worthlessness that he had formed in childhood and adolescence needed to be unearthed and exposed. If he had been able to do so, perhaps with the help of a therapist, the compulsive need to accumulate ever more wealth would never have taken hold and he could have focussed on the things that would have really made him happy – his family and home.


Those who enjoy good mental health usually have some kind of code or set of values by which they live. These needn’t be derived from a religious organization of course, though they may be. That does not mean such people are naive or easily fooled. They have a firm grasp of reality and are difficult to cheat. But they give their loyalty to something greater. And this sense of honour is never compromised, not even in business.

Many, however, will behave in appalling ways when dealing with money. Though in day to day life they may be kind and considerate, at work they will excuse dreadful acts with the cliché “business is business.” Surprisingly, though you would imagine such people have an advantage and end up richer and happier than everyone else, it isn’t always the case. Behaving in such a way usually backfires. Of course, people resent and mistrust them and they soon make enemies. But they also tend to lead narrow, ego-centred lives. When you have no sense of honour and integrity, nothing nobler or higher to which you give your loyalty, a sense of emptiness or futility often follows. Orson Welles famously captured this in his film Citizen Kane, in which the hero ends his life surrounded by limitless wealth yet longing to return to his poor, but happy, childhood.


At one time or another, most people have been taught that it is “better to give than receive.” And though they may have nodded and smiled at whoever told them this, deep down they probably dismissed it as nonsense. But generosity will do more than improve your moral worth; it will also make you happier. In 2008, Michael Norton, from Harvard Business School, conducted an experiment in which he gave 46 volunteers some money and asked them either to spend it on themselves or others. Time and again he found that those who spent it on others derived greater pleasure than those who kept it for themselves.

Above all, it is important to remember what money really is: a medium of exchange. The more you keep it in perspective, the happier you will be.

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Mark Goddard, Ph.D.

Mark Goddard, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist and a consultant specializing in the social-personality psychology. His publications include magazine chapters, articles and self-improvement books on CBT for anxiety, stress and depression. In his spare time, he enjoys reading about political and social history.

*The views expressed by Mr. Goddard in this column are his own, are not made in any official capacity, and do not represent the opinions of his employers.

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